FC Special Report: Chinese likely to trample academic freedom on Kunshan campus

Search words Duke University academic freedom

✔✔ Good day, Fellow Dukies!!

In refusing to approve the Master of Management Studies and Executive MBA degrees proposed by the Administration for Kunshan -- and proposed by the Administration alone, acting without either a strategic plan developed through broad consensus or consultation with the faculty about specific academic programs -- the Fuqua faculty had two incisive reports from study committees. Both of these reports focused on market conditions and finance, just as you would expect from people in a business school.

For all of their strengths, the committee reports did not raise other fundamental issues.

✔ -- When Duke grew from a regional to a national university, it did not need new campuses in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities. Why does a leap in international stature require a bricks and mortar presence elsewhere? Would it be better if we used our resources to enhance the international experience in Durham?

✔ -- Does Duke University have any business starting a new university in China, educating Chinese, the forerunner of many such Duke campuses around the globe, without any showing whatsoever that substantial benefit will accrue to the mother campus?

✔ -- Has anyone ever created in one grandiose swoop a major research university, or does it take years for a college to mature, for its endowment to grow, for its prestige to be enhanced step-by-step.

✔ -- And if we do decide -- after introspection this time -- that we do need to found a new, full-fledged research university, is the best place in the long run the backwater of Kunshan?

✔ -- Beyond these fundamental, threshold questions, there has been scant focus so far on religious freedom on the Kunshan campus. One Trustee in touch with a Deputy Fact Checker is livid now that there is a realization there is not even a room for people to meditate and pray in Kunshan. How will the motto that has served Duke so well for so long -- "Eruditio and Religio" -- be perverted in Kushan? Will the seal of the new Duke Kunshan University shed the cross that we have used on diplomas since the founding of Trinity College? And does the new Duke Kunshan University have aims consistent with those emblazened in brass and stone in the middle of the main West quadrangle: "to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ,"

✔ -- And finally, the Fuqua committee reports did not mention academic freedom. Fair enough, you would expect a business school faculty to focus on nuts and bolts. Not unexpectedly, when FC talks to professors in the Arts and Sciences and other divisions of the university, academic freedom frequently is the start of their analysis.

And that's our topic today, a peek into what may well prove to be a decisive factor in sinking Kunshan, if the Administration rallies from its thrashing at the hands of the Fuqua faculty and proposes any additional degrees. As Loyal Readers know, the by-laws of the university specifically give the faculty jurisdiction over degrees, and there is an approval process with two principal steps: an affirmative vote by the faculty in the school or department making the proposal, and then an affirmative vote by the Academic Council, the university-wide elected faculty senate.

Here is what concerns FC about the academic freedom question:

Duke has discussed this issue with the Chinese. There is the outline of an agreement. Yet we have been told nothing by our administration - raising the spectre that there is not much to reveal. Or even worse, if the details were revealed, it would be a negative factor, adding to the pervasive feeling that Kunshan is a folly.

Without bothering to explain why, Peter the Provost told the Chronicle on March 29th that he was not at liberty to discuss what the Chinese regime had committed to, which is not reassuring at all. Surely the Chinese know, so what's the big secret?

Doubly troubling, because no matter what the agreement states, the Chinese are notorious for violating contracts, not understanding the Western concept of sanctity of contract.

Presumably Duke applied pressure, for a document from the Office of the Provost and the Office of Global Strategy and Programs, obtained earlier in March, states: “Duke will need to take the lead in ensuring that these principles (of academic freedom) are woven into the fabric of daily life at Duke Kunshan University.”

President Brodhead has been as wishy-washy as could be. Also in March, pressed at a meeting of the Academic Council, Brodhead went so far as to say he was "fairly certain" there would be full internet access. Even less reassuring, he went on, “We need to insist on [these values], but we can’t be naive to think they will be practiced the same way [as in the United States].”

So our President has flirted with one small corner of the issue, just the internet, and so far has been silent on the many dimensions of academic freedom.

In 2007, in his annual address to the faculty, Brodhead chose to speak on the internationalization of Duke, using the word "trade-offs" without any explanation. That address did not even hint at a project like Kunshan, and fellow Dukies, we see not trade-offs but sell-outs.

Come on, Uncle Dick. If we had unfettered internet, we'd be the first campus in all of China with it. And you know that is not going to happen.

As FC revealed last week, Brodhead grew impatient and rude, and then ridiculed a senior professor who approached him at a recent faculty reception with questions about academic freedom. The professor outlined how his students routinely went on-line to research subjects that the Chinese government blocks, and he wanted to know how this would play out.

Mr. Brodhead labelled this professor a "worrier," and concluded the conversation by saying next time he needed a worrier on a committee, he knew whom to appoint.

A Deputy Fact Checker has learned that so far, all discussions with the Chinese have focused with what is said and done on-campus. There is no suggestion a student or a professor who tried to speak off campus would stand any differently than a resident vassal.

Even if fully guaranteed within the seven foot high steel walls around the Kunshan campus, separating it from rice paddies and an industrial park under development, this is not enough.

One of the true strengths and hallmarks of Duke's existence, stemming from the case of John Spencer Bassett more than a century ago, is the academic freedom of faculty and students off-campus. In their grandest moment, the Trustees of Duke's forerunner, Trinity College, backed the history professor Bassett against a storm of criticism from racists for comments he wrote in a magazine that circulated throughout the South.

How big is the risk of speaking up off campus? Suppose students and faculty on the Kunshan campus wanted to study and express themselves on currents in China.

Perhaps to discuss Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s most ardent pro-democracy dissidents, who spent over a decade in jail for demanding multiparty elections. Perhaps to discuss the writer Liu Xiaobo, who last year was given an 11-year sentence after he wrote a manifesto calling for an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.

Perhaps to discuss, finally, the release this weekend of Hu Jia, whose activism on behalf of the environment and AIDS landed him in jail for three and a half years.

And not to mention the Nobel Prize winner who sits in a gulag.

Small wonder that the Duke Kunshan Planning Guide stated Duke needed a strategy to bail out in case we got embroiled in a "substantial public controversy." The few words in the Guide surely were accompanied by discussions and development, but stakeholders are left in the dark.

✔✔ Peter Herford worked for more than a quarter century at CBS News, and to say he worked there is to minimize what he did. He was the conscience and soul, a guiding force, a producer for 60 Minutes, a producer for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and a corporate vice president. When he left the newsroom he taught for six years at the nation's premier journalism school at Columbia, and then was director of the University of Chicago's prestigious William Benton Fellowships in Broadcast Journalism. Now he is in China, professor of journalism at Shantou University. From that location, he joined the recent debate over the Fuqua faculty's considering two proposed degrees in Kunshan.

Quoting Herford:

"Would you vote for your university to open a branch in China under the following conditions:

1. No access to foreign social media

2. Most video sites including YouTube blocked

3. Library acquisitions need government approval

4. Government licenses needed before publishing

5. A new "foreign" Internet access policy that sets a quota on how many non-Chinese websites a university (and some corporations) may access. Once the quota is exceeded, all access is blocked. Foreign databases unavailable once you exceed your quota.

6. Plagiarized research and administrative corruption that are common practices.

Those Chinese committed to reforming their education system fight a daily battle that is not helped when foreign universities lend their prestige and reputations in partnership with Chinese institutions that do not respect minimal ethical standards.

Duke has better reasons than finance and home grown squabbles to wait before opening a China campus."


We conclude our essay today by including a long article from University World News, a very good international internet news service focusing on campus developments. It's lengthy, but well worth a read.

The recent tensions in Inner Mongolia, between the indigenous ethnic minority [which wants independence] and the authoritarian Chinese state, have highlighted how the Chinese behave towards their students.

This is not the first time that the authoritarian regime has ordered university administrators to restrict the comings and goings of students and professors, and to stop them going out at weekends. Indeed Chinese universities are structured in such a way as to make such restrictions possible. Surveillance is carried out by professors, security personnel and by students themselves, thanks to the members of the Communist Youth League.

In Beijing, too, scene of the recent 'Jasmine' events in Wangfujing, a permanent order was given to close the universities and 'keep order' on campuses/detention centres. Professors were called on to preach about patriotic values, with the support of sayings by Confucius, Mao, Deng, Zhang, Hu and "5,000 years of history" to "bring everyone together". International students are also caught in the net.

The authoritarian regime is afraid of Chinese students, since the events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Today's events in Inner Mongolia took place almost exactly on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where the name 'Liu Si' [4 June**] is only whispered on campus and where fear, the law of silence and nausea reign. The ghosts of the past continue to haunt the corridors and consciences; lies are not enough.

The authoritarian Chinese regime prefers that these whispers are kept under tight control inside universities where other coercive means exist to keep all the 'resistant' students and professors silent. A ruthless regime exists in Chinese universities. They are temples of indoctrination, where freedom of expression is severely restricted, where a system of carrot and stick - or 'gentle' repression - exists; where the most conformist people are the most rewarded and the rebels expelled.

Foreign professors are kept out of the system, controlled in a different way. I have seen two foreign professors, one English and one American, be accompanied on successive days to the airport and put on a plane for having criticised the Communist Party. There is no tolerance, except in some 'shop window' universities, such as Tsinghua and Peking, which is designed to make people believe that the regime wants world-class universities. I say the regime because the Chinese public are the main victims of the system.

Most universities in China are surrounded by fences and walls, often with the exits located in the four corners of the campus which are guarded by at least two people and security agents in civvies. You have to show your ID card on entering and leaving. The exits are rarely left wide open, creating a funnel which students pass through, sometimes in single file. This is even more the case when there are risks of tension in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Beijing or Shanghai.

This is what I have seen in most of the universities that I have visited in Beijing and what other professors - all of them foreigners, of course - have told me about universities in other towns. I think many Chinese professors who are not pro-regime are ashamed and above all scared to speak out. One day a professor told me: "Don't foreigners who come here know that by their presence they are helping the regime by giving credence to a completely perverse system. It's absurd. It's all smoke and mirrors here." I never saw that professor, whom I met at a buffet during a conference, again.

But the walls are not just around the campus. They are inside it too where people are controlled by a 'velvet glove' system through the Communist Youth League. They are Party stalwarts, ideologically sound and therefore 'correct'. The League is more than a 'Student Union' - these are men and women who take part in leadership-cum-military activities outside campus, far from the view of foreign students. They are the patriotic elite who guide a patriotic education system.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, a former leader of the League, has used it to put a system of thought control inside universities. In this system the campus has become totally regimented, with a tight control kept on students and professors. It extends even into the dormitories, which are presided over by a member of the League/Communist Party.

The Party recruits the best players this way, the most faithful, the most patriotic. This system is very little known outside China. International students are kept one step removed from this system of carrot and stick, their dormitories and classrooms are kept apart...there is no possibility of collusion or getting together.

International students are careful. The feeling of being 'controlled' definitely makes them feel uneasy. The students talk to me about it, knowing I am discreet, or seeing me as a mediator who can bring some solutions. It doesn't take long before they let their true feelings show when we talk:

o We don't have any rights on campus, we pay, never criticise, accept our (dull) professors, learn the language and leave.

o You learn practically nothing here. We are preached at and indoctrinated. It is nothing to do with the brochure that I read before coming here.
o My double diploma in economics was in reality just two years spent learning Chinese.

o The best professors are reserved for the Chinese students. We are given patriotic Chinese professors who speak English badly, hardly ever respond to questions or reply in an oblique way.

o This system doesn't make any sense.

I could continue. The list of their complaints is as extensive as the lack of effort made by foreign universities to check up on what is happening. They are happy to sign agreements, pocket the money and make out that they are offering their students an exchange programme with responsible partners. I have noticed that international students in several Beijing universities are suffering from a curious psychological phenomenon, a type of depression, call it oppression, a lack of the happiness and confidence which western students experience and which you can also see in Japan.

Once, when I was talking to an African student from a francophone African country, he turned to his Chinese friend who was beside him and said to me: "You see my friend here, he is in fact a member of the Communist Youth League and he reports every criticism of the system people make in the international building to a professor who is in charge of these things. After class, we are given a lecture on the subject of the criticism. It's like a game. He pretends to be my friend, but he is in fact a spy." At this, the 'friend' got up and left. "Everything is like this, no-one has any true Chinese friends. The Communist League is everywhere."

Another time, a Chinese assistant told me, in confidence and whispering: "In fact, the members of the League use the foreign students. They study them. Their professors push them to learn how to control foreigners." Others come to see me, most of them foreign students. I do what I can to help them, but the problem is ideological, political, strategic, racist. You mustn't forget that China is not a free country, even if it is protected by a 'constitution', which in effect allows the regime to expel any rebels who immediately 'disappear'; and education is strictly controlled. Students, particularly Chinese ones, have to conform or they will have problems when they come to finding a job.

International students have not come to China to get a taste of authoritarianism, but to learn, to get to know and understand a country which accounts for 22% of the world's population and has the second biggest GDP in the world, a country which is a massive player on the 21st century global stage. Students who come to China have made a brave, strategic, risky and responsible choice. But they don't want to lose their dignity, to feel abandoned and forced to accept "living in an indoctrination camp", as one foreign student called it.

Foreign university administrations involved with China have turned a deaf ear to what is happening because it is easier to do so, to take the money and deny categorically all the criticism, to internationalise without conscience or ethics.

Don't international students have rights? Does no-one want to take up their cause? Is it easier to say that they are all wrong and to believe the lies of a regime known for its 'soft power' methods? Does the repression in Inner Mongolia not exist? Nor that in Tibet, Xinjiang and Beijing and anywhere else in China? It is in the silence and hidden looks that the freedom and happiness of students is held up to ridicule.

* Francis Ernouf is the pseudonym of an anonymous blogger on higher education in China. His full blog postings can be found on Educpros.fr and this article is translated from the French.

**In the original French text the author inadvertently translated "Liu Si" as 6 June instead of 4 June.

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